With Israeli Ties to US a Bit Icy, New Envoy Must Skate With Grace
JERUSALEM — Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, Israel's next ambassador to Washington, remembers a piece of advice former Prime Minister Menachem Begin once gave party insiders.
"It's very easy to quarrel with America. But what is more difficult, nevertheless more intelligent, is to try to convince America," says Mr. Ben-Elissar, quoting Begin, the late leader of the ruling right-wing Likud party.
With this convince-don't-quarrel maxim in his pocket, Ben-Elissar goes to the US in September with a road map for Mideast peace that's sharply different from the one charted by his predecessors.
It's a path that comes out of his past: Ben-Elissar is a veteran peacemaker. He took part in the Camp David talks, in which Israel made peace with Egypt, and he served as the Jewish state's first ambassador to Cairo.
He is, however, no "dove." As author of Likud's party platform, which spells out many uncompromising policies, Ben-Elissar's views on peace are even more conservative than those of his boss, new hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And although Mr. Netanyahu will likely hold his American ambassador at close rein, Ben-Elissar plans to use the patience and persistence he says he learned as a top aide to Mr. Begin to convince America, even if slowly, of his conservative vision for peace.
Ben-Elissar expects a welcoming atmosphere in Washington, where officials are still adapting to Netanyahu's election win in May. "They will be working with a new government and they will get used to it," Ben-Elissar says congenially. Citing US surprise at the recent quick pace of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he says dryly: "We are not going to surprise the Americans."
Ben-Elissar is considered to be on the ideological right of the Likud spectrum. Like most people of his political persuasion, he felt deeply "bereaved" when the Labor government signed a peace deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1994.
In Washington, Ben-Elissar is a known quantity only by those who participated in the 1978 Camp David talks in or the 1991 Middle East peace talks in Madrid. Though they may not have strong reasons to dislike him, it is hard for US peace brokers to ignore the gulf left by the resignation of Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, a heavyweight negotiator who made strong contacts with his Syrian counterparts.
Ben-Elissar says he does not expect to see progress with Syria, from whom Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967. Netanyahu's coalition rejects giving up the strategic Golan territory as a basic principle. "I don't know if formal negotiations will be resumed with Syria," says Ben-Elissar, "I have not noticed much desire on the Syrian side to show some moderation."
Hebrew University's Moshe Maoz, an expert on Syria, points out that Ben-Elissar may not take on as strong a negotiating role as did Ambassador Rabinovich, who was especially empowered by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Moreover, Ben-Elissar was apparently not Netanyahu's top choice for the job, making it less likely that he will be left to make any major decisions on his own. Thus far, Netanyahu is constructing a tiny coterie of foreign-policy advisers, with Dore Gold, an academic, at the forefront. Foreign Minister David Levy insisted on Ben-Elissar's appointment when the ambassador didn't get a ministerial post in the frenetic coalition-forming process.
"I'm not sure he will be liked by Arabs," says Mr. Maoz. "He's a bit arrogant and insensitive to their demands. Other Likud members are flexible and he is not one of them."
One of Ben-Elissar's most inflexible points is his rejection of the term "West Bank" - a geographic description for the land west of the Jordan River, captured by Israel in 1967 from Jordan. He uses instead only "Judea and Samaria," the Biblical names for the region that Jews lay claim to. For him, the issue of expanding Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and Gaza is a demographic one: Because the 150,000 Jews in the territories will never likely outnumber the approximately 2.1 million Arabs, there is no reason to stop expansion. In fact, because of the imbalanced numbers, he says, Jewish expansion is "almost irrelevant."
But such issues are not irrelevant for Palestinians, to whom the prospect of more settlements signals bad faith on the part of Israelis. This position raised, Ben-Elissar responds: "Arab or Palestinian aspirations are very, very different and far away from what the Israelis consider livable."
Ben-Elissar, who sports a trim gray goatee, is also given to polite correction. When asked about the diplomatic dangers of closing Orient House, a hub of PLO activity in East Jerusalem, he says Israel has no diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority "because they are not an independent state and they will not be."
Ben-Elissar is no stranger to diplomacy. In 1980, as Israel's first ambassador to an Arab country, he encountered great resistance in Cairo. He even lived in a hotel for eight months because no one would rent him an apartment. Today he proudly points out gifts from Egyptian friends - the late President Anwar Sadat and current UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Unlike his post in Egypt, his new job entails working with the US, Israel's closest ally, but "that doesn't mean that we will not encounter here and there some difference of opinion," he says.
Ben-Elissar is moving to the US with the message that Israel is not repeating former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's vow that "not one inch" of territory would be conceded. But, he says, there is room for friendly differences with the US. "We don't have to agree on everything. We can't agree on everything," he says. With a bit of dry humor, he adds: "Don't worry. We are not the devil."